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Essential Doc Reads: Week of February 15, 2021

By Tom White

From 'The Changng Same, Episode 1,' a VR project by Michele Stephenson, Joe Brewster and Yasmin Elayat that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, in the New Frontiers section. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival. This image depicts time travel through the evolution of racial violence in the US. Against the backdrop of a dark sky, speckled with stars, is a shack that serves as a portal for time travel, and above the house floats an apparation of a slave.

Essential Doc Reads is our curated selection of recent features and important news items about the documentary form and its processes, from around the internet, as well as from the Documentary magazine archive. We hope you enjoy!

Writing for Immerse, Ngozi Nwadiogbu reports on the "Brown Girls and the New Frontier" panel at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. 

For us, there were a couple of things that were specifically important to acknowledge, as those who have suffered from the racial caste system. One is not just the violence that occurs or has occurred over the last 400 years across the Americas around white supremacy but also Black joy and resilience. We acknowledge our ancestors and we acknowledge the past, not just to accept the future but to reimagine our present. All of that is in this experience. And so the timing, when you think about it, ironically, couldn’t be better. The pandemic, if anything, made us more creative.

POV Magazine’s Courtney Small surveys documentaries made by Black filmmakers over the past five years.

As the activism within these documentaries shows, those peering into the magnifying glass often dictate the narrative they are willing to see. It is easier to ignore the hardships that Black people endure when the only meaningful interaction that one has with that community comes from the pre-filtered view of others. It is why the destruction of statues and brand-name stores, all things that can be replaced, receives more public outrage than the taking of an irreplaceable Black life. Whether it is politicians, law enforcement or media corporations, standing up for racial equality is often portrayed through the misinformed lens of disorder and violence.

The New York Times’ Fahima Haque talks to actor Sterling K. Brown about how he voiced President Abraham Lincoln in the CNN series Lincoln: Divided We Stand.

The most input that I had was when I read Lincoln’s quotes and I’m trying to give them a voice and meaning, because reading Lincoln is like reading Shakespeare, and I can see how people could interpret it in very different ways. So really trying to get into the heart of the language, and in terms of what he was trying to say, I probably had the most latitude and input in terms of how I read those lines.

The late William Greaves’ Nationtime, which documents the 1972 National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana, premieres on the Criterion Channel on February 22. 4Column’s Melissa Anderson offers an appreciation of the film.

Although Nationtime hews closely to the conventions of nonfiction filmmaking—a fly-on-the-wall perspective dominates—the documentary showcases Greaves’s gifts for capturing the ways that energy shifts and ricochets among groups of people, a talent earlier demonstrated in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. Amiri Baraka, one the convention’s cochairs, had approached Greaves about filming the event, which brought together nearly ten thousand African Americans across the political spectrum—from Republicans to socialists to Black nationalists, from elected officials to Black separatists—to develop an ambitious agenda for all Black Americans. 

The New Yorker’s Crispin Long discusses Carol Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table, a short doc about intergenerational immigration, assimilation and trauma.

Before she made No Crying at the Dinner Table, Nguyen had never heard the term “intergenerational trauma,” but when a film programmer used the phrase in a description of her documentary, it struck her as an apt expression for what she had been grappling with in her work.

The New York Times’ Brandon Yu queried a group of Asian American filmmakers about their work and how they would define Asian American cinema.  

That’s the great sort of tragedy within the Asian-American experience, this lack of community, connection, systems of internalized racism. I don’t necessarily agree that there’s a solution to this. Those feelings are part of what it means to be Asian-American sometimes, and part of the internalized racism might be the [reaction to] that sense of aloneness. Sometimes that aloneness can feel sublime and beautiful in a way.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel talks to filmmaker Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring about their latest documentary series, Allen vs. Farrow, which premieres February 21 on HBO.

It really is a mirror to our society at large," says Ziering. "The way these crimes go unpunished and all the reasons they do, the way that all of us are unwittingly and wittingly complicit to some degree. Woody's persona disarmed all of us. We have this celebrity culture, and that gives them this shield of impunity. We imbue them with a certain trust and a love and then can't believe or hear the cognitive dissonance. We give their crimes cover."

As we near the one-year anniversary of the official declaration of the global pandemic, Film Inquiry’s Clement Tyler Obropta assesses “the new coronavirus cinema.”

Documentaries might be broadening our understanding of the disease and its effects, but to me, short-form documentary cinema is the only mode of filmmaking that’s capturing COVID properly. It’s getting the fear, the stress, and the way that time just erodes. Life feels cavernous and open these days, like I can feel the wind whistling through the body, like there are these big unfillable spaces inside us. 

Hyperallergic’s Colony Little profiles Defender, a San Francisco-based new media project that pairs filmmakers with public defenders to empower underserved communities in the criminal justice system.

“Some of these themes are buried in niche news, and that’s why we’re making Defender,” said Gorjestani. “The communities that the public defender serves are not participating or are not invited to participate in the storytelling about the work that they do,” he continued. “The language and the way these things are talked about gets stuck in a very journalistic tone but we are missing a whole generation. This is going to have a different tone — it’s being made in a language that’s born out of the communities that the office represents.” 

Writing for Film Quarterly, Linnéa J. Hussein, examines the idea, conceit and image of the mask in documentary storytelling.

When the moment comes in which the more privileged nations of the world stop wearing masks in supermarkets, classrooms, or at social gatherings, I urge everyone to pay attention to who is still wearing masks on screens, and how that index of contemporaneity will shift once more towards an index of neglect from the rest of the world. In the meantime, I hope that filmmakers will make productive use of this brief moment in the coming months (hopefully not years) to show that an affirmation of coevalness with the other peoples of the world can actually have the type of socio-political impact to which documentary cinema has and must continue to aspire.

Screen Daily’s Charles Gant asks, Has BAFTA’s documentary category become too populist?

The documentary producer has mixed feelings on Bafta’s process. “If documentary as a form is becoming more popular, then broadening the voting to non-documentary people may not be a terrible thing,” he says. “But if that leads to the favouring of films based on their visibility rather than their merit, then, obviously, that’s a bad thing.”

Filmmaker’s Anthony Kaufman polled the doc community about the impact of Amazon PVD’s new policy about self-publishing.

This will be a huge challenge for us,” says one distribution executive, whose company releases a number of documentaries. “This will affect stakeholders across the independent film industry, whether directors, sales agents, distributors, and most importantly audiences that won’t be able to enjoy the work, and in the worst possible time in society”—as theatrical exhibition still remains largely supplanted by streaming.

From the Archives, Summer 2019 Issue, "The Changing Same Takes on the Legacy of Lynching"

“Part of our concept was looking at the changes of landscape of white supremacy and of anti-blackness over the century,” Brewster maintains. He and Stephenson both connected emotionally on a personal level to the people of Marianna and their stories. “You begin to understand why my father left East Texas and moved to Los Angeles,” Brewster reflects. “It wasn’t because he could get a job making $175 for the post office. I understand why large communities of black people moved to Chicago and to Philadelphia. They did it for the safety, and unfortunately what they fled probably was there.” 

In the News

PBS Announces Three-Part Series: Greta Thunberg: A Year To Change the World


WGA Unveils Screenplay Nominees


Liesl Copland Joins Participant as EVP of Content Strategy


Peacock Discloses Doc Plans


History Announces Tulsa Race Massacre Doc from Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams


NEON’s Super Ltd. Acquires All Light, Everywhere